Review: Zomby – Ultra

Electronic music producer Zomby has created a run of remarkable albums since 2008, with fourth album Ultra, his latest, demonstrating that he is capable of retooling his sound to create exhilarating new formulas.

Its sharp, chrome red cover, designed by Ben Drury, gives some clue of the contents. It also reflects the limited details we know of the reclusive producer: his penchant for high fashion, his deep love of rave and jungle music of the eighties and nineties, and also his singular approach to his creative output. Ultra is lean and futuristic, sparse but with everything coming correct.

This correctness is something of a prevalent feature of Zomby’s work. A track like Glass, with its ringing synth riff and steady bass kick, is a study in how his compositions often balance a compact set of instrumental elements to produce fine quality music. It is an exercise in control, drawn into particular focus when the tempo rolls through several syncopated adjustments towards the song’s conclusion.

“Ultra is lean and futuristic, sparse but with everything coming correct”

For all its precision, Ultra does see Zomby prepared to experiment with his work. Sweetz, one of several collaborations with fellow producer and Hyperdub label-mate Burial, shows how his confidence translates when he pushes himself outside of his usual territory. The track goes through several transitions, starting with a looped vocal that recalls a footwork production, before presenting a series of jarring and compelling vignettes. Layered static and frequency sweeps shift around the four minute mark into a squalling, metallic riff, like it has erupted from the panicked memory of an early morning rave. The ranging, exploratory changes over six minutes is a contrast to Zomby’s signature sound, being closer to Burial’s, though it also underlines his capability to adapt.

In a similar fashion, the abrupt way the synth pattern in Burst pitches and veers recalls something of Oneohtrix Point Never, without risking accusations of pastiche. There’s a confidence that suggests Zomby knows and loves everything that electronic music is prepared to throw in the mix, from the click-clack gunshot sounds that punctuate opener Reflection, to the rain and eerie dub throb that serves as the foundation of closing track Tenkyuu.

Zomby’s previous records With Love and Dedication drew on a mournful palette, and there is far less immediately emotive on the surface of Ultra. The album is dark in tone, though there are moments of reprise, such as the punchy Quandary with its ringing attack. While previous efforts suggested claustrophobic and personal melancholy, Ultra is all swift presentation through a sheen that hints at nostalgia for futures imagined though unmaterialized. That sense of a lost past-future has been a consistent feature of Zomby’s music, though it is presented here are a more voluminous and diverse prospect that previous efforts. There is a shifting continuum of moods and styles, all accomplished, and there is enough here to absorb even the casual listener.

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